A support group for young conspiracy theory addicts gather in a Queens church basement a week before the 2016 election in Max Baker’s fascinating new play The Conspiracists, now playing at the IRT Theater. When a new member joins their ranks, the group dynamic gets spun out of whack. With a strong ensemble, sharp writing, and timely discourse, The Conspiracists will lead you down the “rabbit hole” of conspiracy theories.
The five conspiracists in the support group have seemingly non-intersecting “interests.” Jo (Ricki Lynne) is obsessed with the Mandela Effect, a phenomenon named after Nelson Mandela that involves collective memory, the Large Hadron Collider, and parallel universes. Win (Ian Poake), the self-proclaimed leader of the group, is a Truther, someone who believes there is a deep-rooted government conspiracy behind every major event. Emmett (Arthur Kriklivy) doesn’t really settle on one particular theory but rather plays around with several versions of a Matrix-like conspiracy. Dee Dee (Sofiya Cheyenne) believes the Illuminati is controlling everything and that certain people, including Justin Bieber and Hillary Clinton, are reptilian shape-shifters. And Brooke (Alice Johnson) is obsessed with religion and angels.
While these people have obviously been meeting for a while, the play utilizes a structure reminiscent of “Groundhog Day” where, in three different “parallel universe” versions of the night’s events, a new member shows up to shake things up. Lisa Jill Anderson plays three different versions of this guest. First, she is a mentally ill woman calling herself Madonna who goes off the rails, then a pessimist named Steve who is well-versed in all kinds of conspiracies, then a flirtatious but obnoxious woman who intrudes on the meeting while she waits for her date. Her adeptness at playing three totally different characters in one play is a testament to Anderson’s talents.
In fact, all the actors are pretty much pitch perfect: Poake convincingly portrays Win as a tinder box of nervous energy; Cheyenne’s Dee Dee is sarcastic and full of childlike wonder at the same time; Lynne is quite impressive as the socially awkward Jo, who uses her physicality to create a really unique character. They play real people you might meet in quotidian settings, hardly the caricatures of crazy conspiracists.
Baker, who also directs, does a fine job of peeling the layers off these people while at the same time not revealing too much, leaving much for the audience to wonder at. There is a sort of supernatural element to The Conspiracists, corresponding to the parallel universe theory, and more than one reference made to “the woman upstairs,” presumably the person who coordinates the different groups who meet in the church basement. But with so much on which to theorize, why not believe it means something more divine?
That’s what’s so interesting about The Conspiracists. You could possibly see this play multiple times and discover new things each time that you hadn’t noticed before. Conspiracies are like that. However, like any good piece of theatre, the real drama is derived more from the personal relationships than the actual conspiracy theories. Some really ugly moments occur between the characters as well as some really nice ones. It’s about human beings drawn together by a common interest, whether or not they happen to agree with one another. And, sometimes, an object changes right before your eyes and you have nothing else to explain it other than a parallel universe.